May 15, 2014 6:50 PM | Staff
"People always talk about 'oh, I was playing games since I was a kid,' and I loved them, but I didn't have them," says Shawn Alexander Allen, who grew up poor in New York City.
His tactical brawler, Treachery in Beatdown City, just finished a successful Kickstarter campaign, his second attempt to fund the game through the crowdfunding service. His game, developed under his studio's name, Nuchallenger, is a side-scrolling, tactical beat-em-up with menu-based combos, classic arcade-style graphics and themes of urban class war, and in many ways it feels like a love letter to his home.
Allen liked writing and illustrating all throughout his childhood, but even though he went to a technical high school in Brooklyn, making games as a career had never occurred to him. He graduated from the prestigious School for Visual Arts where he attended for graphic design, but rather than do web design, he wanted to pursue art and animation.
All along, Allen had hung out at and worked in an Electronics Boutique in his neighborhood, where he shared games fandom with other locals; just down the street was Rockstar Games' Prince Street office. In 2001, the studio would use Allen's Electronics Boutique as a site for focus testing, and he fell in love with the studio's commitment to unique, distinctive and stylish art and visual aesthetics.
In those years there was much talk of a game industry sprouting up in New York City; not only did Rockstar have an office there, but Gameloft and other mobile, social and online-focused development houses had headquarters in one of the U.S.'s heftiest cities. It seemed like a logical conclusion that New York could become an industry hub, but thanks to rising real estate costs and massive business shifts for the fields the city's studios centered on, it never took off. By the time Allen graduated from SVA, most of the game industry jobs had dried up.
But Rockstar had grown. Despite the fact Allen was more a fan of Japanese role-playing games than Grand Theft Auto ("I grew up in the hood; I didn't feel I needed a game about the hood"), he got a job at the New York studio doing game capture, which involved creating trailers and developing game footage for campaigns. He did some writing and voice-over for the GTA cities' pedestrians, but after four-and-a-half years he hadn't actually begun game development.
His own ideas for games have never left him alone, though. By 2003, on his second date with Diana Santiago, the woman who would become his wife (and artist on Treachery), Allen recalls dominating the conversation: "I spoke to her almost exclusively for this one idea that I had for a game story," he laughs ruefully. "She says I told it to her in such detail she had a nightmare."
Allen began to investigate game development more seriously. For Allen, the scene around New York University's Game Center was a revelation, with its talks, public lectures, workshops and game jams. Before, when he'd tried to talk about mechanics and systems with his friends at the EB store, he'd been accused of "overanalyzing things," but the educational community led by the likes of Frank Lantz and Eric Zimmerman loved to analyze and experiment.
"I didn't know something like that existed, here. Meeting other independent designers, I felt, 'oh, man, this is exactly what I've needed.'"
"I wanted to make a game that was about corruption in the city, about the city itself and the plight of gentrification, with strong characters."
By 2012 Allen was participating in the Global Game Jam, part of a team that developed a game called The Universe Within, scoring a local "best overall" award. Kotaku's Evan Narcisse wrote about the game, and Allen was immensely gratified by the success. He says it gave him the confidence to pursue his own ideas. When he lost his job in 2012 he was accepted into the Game Center's MFA program, but with a daughter in her teens and preparing for the future herself, he couldn't justify taking out yet another student loan. Instead, he decided to use the time allotted by his severance and unemployment to try to finally make one of his own game ideas a reality.
"I wanted to make a game that was about corruption in the city, about the city itself and the plight of gentrification, with strong characters," he said. Returning to his roots in pixel graphics and influenced by games he loved, like Bad Dudes, Treachery in Beatdown City began to come together, with Allen viewing each character and each enemy as a lifelike person, a piece of art.
"I wanted to develop many different ways of engaging in things, with many different moves. I didn't want to make something that you could solve by just bashing buttons. I wanted the enemies to be more meaningful, in terms of their engagement with you. The enemies all have little backstories also," he adds. "I thought, let's give the enemies hopes, fears and dreams. Some don't want to fight you, they're the product of their environment, or they get roped into fighting you by other people they're with."
He's focused on developing a thoughtful brawler, and as a side effect he hopes it appeals to people normally intimidated by the frenetic style of more traditional beat-em-ups. And he wanted to make characters you don't normally see in games. One of Treachery's three heroes is based on a friend from the Electronics Boutique, Bruce, a guy with Jamaican roots and an affinity for martial arts like capoeira.
"Even when I see people from my life in games, they're not very deeply represented," Allen reflects. Mixed-race and dark-skinned, he himself has had to answer the "what are you" question over and over again. People ask him "what nationality are you," and the reply "I'm American" never seems to suffice. "A cop asked me when I was 12, and I just said, 'I'm a human,'" he recalls.
But increasingly, Allen has been stepping up as an advocate for diversity in games. Invited to present at GDC, he used his time on the Indie Soapbox to bring attention to other black, multiracial or non-white creators and voices working in independent games, not only to elevate their work on a grand stage, but to make the point that much of the contribution to games from non-white people often goes overlooked or entirely unknown.
With Rockstar on his resume, more people listen to him, he's noticed. For the first time, he's comfortable identifying himself in his professional circles as Black, or biracial Black, because it gives him an opportunity to make a difference when it comes to issues of representation. "It's been very strange for me, but it seems that when people realize that I'm not one of the status quo, that I am different, they see themselves as more valuable," Allen says. "I've had people emailing me thanking me for doing this, and I'm trying to champion others."
Treachery in Beatdown City's initial Kickstarter attempt floundered, as Allen encountered many of the stumbling blocks familiar to those who've tried to navigate Kickstarter before -- failing to follow up on publicity opportunities, or coming too late to the community-building aspect. The last week of the first Kickstarter fell alongside the release of Titanfall, Towerfall and Dark Souls 2, less than ideal timing to gain attention and support for your first indie game.
"I don't want to be pigeonholed for being 'the games diversity guy' if my mechanics aren't also sound."
But after Allen displayed generosity and resilience at GDC, more people became aware of his work and his message. He says it wasn't his intention for his efforts to promote diversity to be linked to his efforts to fund a game with diverse protagonists, but it happened anyway, and pundits and veterans all over the game industry rallied to make sure people saw and considered backing Treachery in Beatdown City (full disclosure: I'm a backer!).
And as the second Kickstarter funding effort was wrapping up, Nintendo publicly offended entire swaths of its community by suggesting there were no gay marriages in Tomodachi Life because the game didn't want to make "social commentary." But exclusion is commentary in itself, and it seems likely a fair few passionate game fans decided to put their money where their mouths were by backing a game that had explicitly tried to include underrepresented characters and plausible, non-stereotypical minorities.
"Lisa, one of the protagonists, is designed by Diana," Allen says. "I wanted to make sure she was a strong character. My mother came to New York in the 1970s, and she was a repo person and a taxi driver, and I was raised by her. Diana is the best person in my life now, and I have a daughter, and I wanted a nonsexualized, tough woman. Diana does feminist fine art, so I was like, 'hey, design this character. Let's work together on this."
"It all just flowed out of me because of my experiences," he adds. "I wanted positive roles for the black guy, for the puerto-rican lady. I tried to focus on the diversity of the streets, and I probably would exclude a design if I felt it might represent someone. You don't want people to laugh at the wrong things. I would never put in the old 'terrible Asian language pun,' unless it would be funny to the families of Chinese and Vietnamese people who were my friends and family growing up."
Still, while Allen has been passionate about elevating others, "I think I'm less important than what's going on," he asserts. "I'm glad people can see the game on every level, and not just one particular level. I don't want to be pigeonholed for being 'the games diversity guy' if my mechanics aren't also sound."
Now that Treachery in Beatdown City has been successfully funded, he can relax a little bit after the flood of anxiety and emotion. The game will actually get made, and unlike many teams that take to Kickstarter, he would have had no other funding options. A lot has been riding on the last 60 days. "If we'd failed, it would have been... I wouldn't know what's going to be my support network for the next few months," he says.
But thanks to his passion and commitment, both to a long-held game idea, to the city he lives in and to elevating within his community that deserve to have a chance to be welcomed, encouraged and seen in the game industry, fans and backers have created that support network. It's all about rewarding their faith now.
"I wouldn't have gone this deep if I didn't care," he says. "This game... it's the one that's inspired me to do this full-time, finally, and to take on these massive risks."
[Leigh Alexander wrote this article for sister site Gamasutra]